The shape of things
You don’t really know a city until you know its sculpture
Maybe what’s most important about sculpture, as far as residents of growing cities are concerned, is also what’s most obvious: that its first order of business is the taking up of space. Sculpture has many manifestations in many scales—figurines, utensils, masks, statues, buildings, huge ridiculous objects, etc.—but they all begin and end with a spatial reckoning, as much an aesthetic matter as a practical one. We should not let our urban planners forget this, for it is why, arguably, no other medium can convey a place’s personality so directly.
With that in mind, what does it say about Sacramento that here is where to find Danny Scheible’s peculiar new Fools Foundation installation, made from roughly 43 miles of masking tape? Are we to consider our city merely a disposable, gently adhesive, sort-of-funny-smelling creative accessory? Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be all bad, but in any case Scheible’s project shows a grander ambition.
Yes, the basic unit of his current work is a length of standard-issue masking tape, usually a few feet, rolled into itself along the vertical plane to become a tube, which he then folds crosswise, end over end, or coils, or crumples. Here and there he layers them together to create furniture-sized riffs on 3-D geometry. Mostly he spins them into smaller, conical stalagmites or other multifaceted, Dr. Seussian structures, grouped together to constitute the skyline of a miniature city.
Scheible, a lanky young dude not long out of UC Santa Cruz, calls visual art “the only thing that made sense to me out of all the things I studied in college.” As an amateur land developer, though, he’s rather a natural. “All the pieces that get dirty become the ghetto,” he said last week, standing within his work-in-progress and pointing out a Tupperware tub full of tape strips sullied by lint and dust. Other tubs’ contents had been separated out by color: blue for bodies of water, green for grass, masking-tape beige for everything else.
The resulting work, which continues to evolve, is a wonder both of discipline and fancy—the former because he put in many weeks worth of 10-hour days to render it, and the latter because he had many weeks worth of 10-hour days available to put in. “I wake up and come here. At night I go home and I eat,” he said. “It’s like training yourself to run. The more you train, the more you can do. It’s mindless.”
Scheible doesn’t mind at all if his project draws comparisons to the gonzo German dadaist Kurt Schwitters’ “Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery,” a work of sculptural collage that became a work of architecture by outgrowing the studio corner in which it was conceived. “I like the idea of building things until they collapse,” he said. “I like pushing myself.”
With that, and without really thinking, he whipped open a roll of tape and let it loll like a yo-yo, then tore off the piece he needed and swiftly twirled it into one of his rudimentary tubes. It was something to see, and highly recommended for any land-use pronouncement maker: how, by the authority of a sculptor’s hand, even a rote gesture of filling space can become mesmerizing.And it’s for the same reason that an average gallery-goer, well trained by stern wall placards to not even think about touching anything, might blush to witness Alan Osborne handling his own metalworks: pawing, caressing, rapping, confidently signaling a full range of sensual familiarity. Even in their emphatic stillness, the pieces seem to burgeon under his touch.
Osborne, now in his late 50s, has distinguished himself as an elegant abstractionist, most at home in monumental bronzes but nimble in other media, as well, as is implied by a recent foray into vivid enamels. He owns the Art Foundry and its gallery (www.artfoundryinc.com) on R Street, where, on a recent afternoon, three of his dozen employees stood in furnace-like heat welding together the parts of a bronze horse due soon to stand on Del Paso Boulevard. Lately, the city’s Art in Public Places program has kept Osborne and his crew briskly busy. They’ve become a manufacturing hub for the eyesores or sights for sore eyes, depending on your point of view, that blemish or grace the grounds of our courthouses, light-rail stations, schools, parks, airports and boulevard medians.
“There’s plenty of buildings with plenty of space to put sculpture in Sacramento,” Osborne said, pacing among his mysterious tools and machines, slop sinks and grimy shelves full of art parts and the eerie wax molds from which they were hatched. Ominously, a dark, oversized, featureless figure by Robert Grady loomed in the corner, awaiting its dispatch to Capitol Mall.
The burden of articulating this or any city’s sculptural sense of self seems unavoidably heavy. But Osborne has a forklift. “California has a number of foundries, but this one is pretty specialized,” he said with evident pride. “A lot of artists come here.” And to prove it, his gallery will show off a handsome sampling of their work this month.
As is true of urban growth, it’s easy to imagine sculpture only as an art of accumulation, of adding mass and never subtracting. Even if you favor Michelangelo’s encouraging dictum of creative deduction—that it’s all already there within the stone and simply awaiting deliverance by the sculptor’s hand—you still have to start with a big hunk of stone.
Maybe an evisceration is in order. “Sculpture requires peeling, a stripping away of old coats and skin,” said Robert Cremean, famously enough that the Crocker Art Museum has reprinted that line in big letters on a gallery wall. It’s by way of introduction to the longtime Californian’s generally figurative works (in marble, wood, bronze, ceramics), recently acquired and presented through the summer in an exhibit called Skinned.
This is a major acquisition. Cremean is a fierce and complicated artist, whose work bracingly elaborates the notion of sculpture as a kind of frozen choreography. Often it describes visceral transformations in totemic, tribal, eroticized and even horrifying imagery. Several pieces contain text written in the artist’s own hand. In one, he writes of an “aesthetic orgasm,” going on to point out that “orgasm is the ultimate reality.” That’s exciting news in a town where, historically, statues have tended to get their balls cut off or covered up for propriety’s sake.
It speaks well of Sacramento to have Cremean collected here, as it does to have artists as divergent as Scheible and Osborne taking up our space—striving for some kind of balance between whimsy and tedium, between structural fortitude and aesthetic indulgence, between would-be kitsch and counterforce to blandness. With proportions like those, you know a place must have a strong personality.